Lagos is a city of extremes. Extreme wealth and extreme poverty. Nigeria is rich in oil and many Western countries have capitalized on this. Where there is oil there is wealth. Unfortunately, as with much of Africa there is also a history of corruption. The country is rich but the people are poor. Lagos has an estimated population of 20 million, that means many in need. The kids hadn’t left the compound much in the three weeks we have been here. They haven’t been exposed to much of the poverty. Our neighborhood is the Beverly Hills of Lagos. So all they have seen is what they can see from their bedroom windows. They needed to get out. I admit I had put it off as long as I could. I tried to prepare them for Africa but I wasn’t sure it was enough. So I decided to take the kids to the local mall. It is in a nice gated facility where security searches your car and handbags on arrival. There are stores like Nike, Sephora, KFC, Coldstone and others. There is even a Lego store. My boys were excited to go in and have a local supply for their expensive habit. Luxury in Africa comes at a steep price though. Expect to pay twice what you would pay retail in the States. They left empty handed but I couldn’t help but take a picture of them.
When you leave the mall the streets are flooded with beggars and hawkers. The cars get surrounded. It is devastating to observe and you feel horrible for participating in a lifestyle of greed and consumption. You instantly feel angry at your 10 year old who ten minutes earlier took one bite of his Cold Stone ice cream, exclaimed “It is too sweet I don’t want it” and set it on the table to melt. You are horrible for not doing more. The handicapped individuals clog the entryways to the larger streets. A man who was born with his legs twisted 180 degrees in the wrong direction who can only walk on all fours. A woman so scared from burns she no longer has a nose. A young daughter leading her blind father weaving in and out of the cars and motorcycles. A mother holding up her nude sickly thin child with legs no thicker than a hot dog. A woman in a wheelchair with no limbs at all just left in the middle of the road so you are forced to swerve around her and engage more with the people on the sides. It is devastating and gut wrenching. You look down hoping you will feel better only to feel worse so you look them in the eye only to return to looking down again.
Three brothers exactly my boys ages run up to the armored vehicle. Their smile is identical and beautiful. I inhale deeply and my Nigerian driver shakes his head. The boys knock on the windows and point to their mouths and put their hands together in prayer.
“Misses, food. Misses, food”
They yell and bang. The oldest one is probably 12. The whites of his eyes were yellow. The sclera a visible sign of his ongoing fight with malaria a disease that each person in Nigeria has a 11-50% chance of catching every month. The next brother is painfully thin. His cheekbones taunt and prominent. The youngest is small, just like my Ollie. He is missing the same tooth and wearing dirty rags grasping his brothers hand trying to keep up. As a mother I feel like all I want to do is scoop them up and make everything alright.
Unfortunately that isn’t my truth. My truth is that I can not give these boys money without putting my own children at risk.
I glanced up and just beyond these children is a pack of teenagers, much larger and ready to swoop in and steal the food and money given. This would be the least dangerous thing to occur. More likely if I were to roll down my window to give them a snack one of the teens would jump into the car and take my purse, refuse to get out without paying a bribe or even worse abduct us for ransom. Those that are handicapped or disabled face a similar fate. Being pimped out to support local gangs or beaten for the food and money they do collect. The little boys run and chase the car the youngest hangs on to the mirror as we briskly turn a corner. I am sure he is going to fall and get run over but as we accelerate he drops easily to the ground and lopes back to his brothers. I sigh with guilt, relieved we are now driving fast enough I can just look straight ahead. During all of this I overhear my children having this conversation.
7 year old son “What about just a little bit of food?”
12 year old son “If we roll down the windows we might not be able to get them out of the car. Everyone is starving here Ollie. That is why dads work is important. We are lucky to be from the USA where there are laws that are followed, that is called democracy. Dads job is to help support democracy all over the world. When he and his friends go to work they work with the Nigerian government to do good. To be better. To help people come to the United States and go to college to get trained for jobs then to come back to Nigeria and help people or to stay in the US and send money home. To help build better roads. To help people have clean water and better food and health care. If we gave that family some food they would feel better for today but it wouldn’t fix things. ”
7 year old son “What if we gave the dad a job?
12 year old son “Let’s say that we helped get the dad a job. If the roads are so flooded that he can’t get to his job then it won’t help. If he has malaria and can’t get out of bed to go to his job it won’t help. If he goes to a job with a corrupt boss who steals all of his money it won’t help. We have to fix all of these things corruption, healthcare, roads, and food and water before having a job can really make a difference. That is what dad is trying to do with his work. We can’t give the boy food, but we can help dad do his job.”
10 year old son “I can help dad by getting up early and making him breakfast so he is ready for work.”
I choked up a bit.
The truth of it is we can’t make a difference in the way that seems the simplest. The most humane. We can’t feed, clothe and care for people directly but we can support Ben in his work and we can support the local economy.
I can buy fresh produce and locally grown plants from my corner peddler.
I can shop at my local market and visit local restaurants.
I can attend Nigerian taught yoga classes, go to the movies, and order takeout to be delivered by men on motorcycles.
I can teach my children to care for their world to reduce, reuse and recycle.
I can hire local help. A steward (housekeeper), driver, a massage therapist, a seamstress, and a man to carry dirt for my potted plants.
Yes in order to help poverty I become a consumer. I will hire these lovely people to serve me, massage me, sew for me, wine and dine me, and entertain me so they can have purpose and income. I know, it feels so plantation like. Especially since they all insist on calling me Madame. If you know me you know how much I love to really interact with the local people in countries I am exploring. It is a different ballgame here and I have 4 kids along for the ride. I’m still coming to terms with these realities: my lack of freedom to make my own choices because it might put my children of the US government at risk, the consumerism and the title.
I can kick a soccer ball around with my kids and the local children and watch them laugh and share. But most of all I can smile and tell everyone how much I love their country and feel honored to be here because how can you not love a country with so much hope that it names its children names like Innocence, Patience, Blessing and Gift. And I can learn from them to find beauty in all of the little things because that is what truly brings happiness.